When I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. perform live, I had no idea that half a century later I would attend a live performance by his protegé Ben Vereen. Just as I had no idea that the performance I saw tonight would include a tribute to Sammy, delightfully etched by Mr. Vereen.
If Sammy’s voice was akin to an unmuted trumpet then Mr. V’s voice is a slide trombone, mellow and capable of great emotion. Like Sammy, Mr. V is a triple threat – singer, actor and dancer. And just like the Sammy I saw, he has reached that stage in life when he limits his hoofing to a few elegant moves and a bit of soft shoe. The leaps and splits are for younger men.
Mr. V reminded us of his younger self with film retrospectives that introduce each act of his show. A show that he is shaping with the intention of opening on Broadway, a street where the Tony winner will always be welcome.
His trio – piano, drums and bass – were outstanding, providing the foundation over which Mr. V laid scat and melody. In an unforgettable segment that began with Misty, moved to Funny Valentine and ended with At Last, Mr. V sang a duet with each sideman. Mr. V sang the lyric while the instrumentalist riffed and wound and hovered and danced and…demonstrated that each were equal to the talents of their front man.
A personal highlight was hearing Mr. V turn lyric into poetry, melody into a simple accessory. Case in point – Defying Gravity and For Good – two big songs from Wicked known as “women’s songs” with high notes most men can’t reach. They are tour de force, showstoppers. The melodies often overwhelming the lyrics. Not when Mr. V knocks them out of the park. They become anthems, calls to action, mirrors of regret and hope. Poetry.
In addition to Sammy, Mr. V’s memories encompass Bob Fosse, Andrew Lloyd Weber , Steven Schwartz, and the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra. His memories are the thread that ties the nascent show together. He is a droll storyteller, unafraid to make fun of himself if it means a laugh.
Emotion is physical. We feel with our whole bodies. That’s a scientific fact made real by Ben Vereen, whose every gesture and movement had purpose.
Thank you, Mr. V. Sammy would have been proud.